B-17 FLYING FORTRESS MAKES COMBAT DEBUT

London, England July 8, 1941

On this date in 1941, five months before the United States was drawn into World War II, the Boeing B‑17 Flying For­tress was flown in com­bat for the first time, this by the Royal Air Force in an attack on the North German port of Wilhelms­haven. The first pro­duc­tion model, the Boeing B‑17B, was flown on June 27, 1939, and by year’s end 25 of these high-per­for­mance, four-engine heavy bombers were in Amer­ica’s air fleet. By the end of World War II, nearly 13,000 “Forts” would see ser­vice in the RAF and U.S. Eighth, Ninth, Twelfth, and Fifteenth Army Air Forces.

The later-model B-17s—there were six in all—had a top speed of just under 300 mph, a range of 2,000 miles, and carried a 10- or 11-man crew. Flying at altitudes up to 30,000 ft where temper­a­tures were –50°F, their gutsy crew­men wore oxygen masks and an elec­trically heated combi­na­tion of flight suits, boots, gloves, and googles. Like the twin-tailed Consoli­dated B‑24 Libe­rator and the British-built Avro Lan­caster, the B‑17 was at the heart of the Anglo-Ameri­can stra­tegic bombing cam­paign in Nazi-occupied Europe. According to a state­ment by the U.S.-British Combined Chiefs of Staff in January 1943, the objec­tive of the stra­tegic bombing cam­paign was to destroy and dis­locate the Axis “mili­tary, indus­trial, and eco­no­mic system, and [under­mine] the morale of the people to a point where their capa­city for armed resis­tance is fatally weakened.” This stra­tegy had wide­spread appeal espe­cially in the run-up to D-Day, June 6, 1944, when the Western Allies were marshaling their strength for a full-scale ground invasion of Northwestern Europe, the prelude to their invasion and conquest of Nazi Germany.

In carrying out its role, the heavy defen­sive arma­ments of the B‑17 limited bomb loads to 2-1/2 tons per plane, which meant that raids over Axis-occu­pied Europe con­sisted, on any single mis­sion, of hun­dreds and later several thou­sand of these war­birds, accom­panied by a thou­sand-fighter escort. The bombers carried a deadly mix of high-explo­sive bombs and incen­di­ary bombs that devas­tated not just popu­la­tion cen­ters like Ham­burg (mid-1943) and Berlin (a turn­about on the London Blitz of 1940–1941) but also key eco­no­mic and mili­tary choke­points; for example, classifi­cation/­mar­shal­ling yards where troop and freight/­goods cars were formed into trains, rail lines, high­ways, and bridges; air­craft and arma­ment fac­tories; ball bearing plants; and oil and artificial fuel refineries and tank farms.

The theory that round-the-clock bombing by the RAF (by night) and the USAAF (by day) would seriously under­mine Germany’s defenses, devas­tate the German eco­no­my and work­force, demoralize civilian morale, and force the country’s leadership to the nego­ti­a­tion table like it did Italy (more or less)—all with­out a bloody ground inva­sion—did not mate­ri­alize. But applied to Japan’s Home Islands, the theory worked up to a point, nudged in the end by two nuclear bombs.





Allied Heavy Bombers Over Germany and Their Escorts

U.S. Eighth Air Force Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress RAF Avro Lancasters

Left: A B-17 Flying Fortress of the U.S. Eighth Air Force sta­tioned at Bassing­bourn, Eng­land. Unable to con­duct ground opera­tions on the Euro­pean con­ti­nent until Allied strength was suffi­cient for a full-scale inva­sion, British and Amer­ican war planners based their grand stra­tegy on a pro­tracted cam­paign of aerial bom­bard­ment of Ger­many’s indus­trial sites and civil­ian areas in order to bring the Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich to its knees. Allied heavy bombers, com­bined with night-navi­gation and pre­cision-bombing tech­niques, proved devas­tatingly effec­tive. Of Germany’s 25 largest popu­lation cen­ters (half-million or more resi­dents) Leipzig suffered the least (at 20 per­cent) and Bochum the most (83 per­cent). Ham­burg was 75 per­cent destroyed; Mainz, Dues­sel­dorf, Cologne, Han­no­ver, and Mann­heim suffered 60 per­cent or better; and a third of the Nazi capital, Berlin, lay in ruins at war’s end.

Right: Three RAF Avro Lancaster B.Is based at Wadding­ton, Lincoln­shire, fly above the clouds, Septem­ber 29, 1942. Intro­duced into ser­vice in February 1942, 7,377 of these four-engine “Lancs” were built. They became the main heavy bomber used by the RAF as well as the most famous and suc­cess­ful of the war’s night bombers in con­trast to the USAAF heavy bombers that were used mostly in daylight raids over occupied Europe.

Republic P-47D Thunderbolt North American P-51D Mustang

Left: First flown on May 6, 1941, 15,660 of these Repub­lic P‑47 Thunder­bolt air com­bat, ground attack, and bomber escorts were built. Rugged and armed with eight .50 cali­ber ma­chine guns, these jug-shaped fighters were powered by a Pratt & Whit­ney R‑2800 radial engine for a maxi­mum speed of 433 mph at 30,000 ft. They were a good match for the Luft­waffe’s Messer­schmitt Bf 109s and Focke-Wulf Fw 190s. But even out­fitted with extra fuel in belly tanks, P‑47s in their escort role could only accom­pany Allied heavy bombers from Eng­land to the German border before they were forced to turn back for home.

Right: North American P-51 Mustangs were used in air com­bat, ground attacks, preci­sion bombing, and long-range bomber escort service. Over 15,000 P‑51s in 12 major pro­duc­tion vari­ants were built. The P‑51 entered ser­vice at the end of 1943. Equipped with a Rolls-Royce Mer­lin V engine that could propel it at 441 mph at 29,000 ft, the P‑51 and the Lock­heed P‑38 Lightning vir­tually swept the Luft­waffe from the sky in time for June 1944’s Normandy landings. In this photo the P‑51 is wearing its Nor­mandy in­va­sion stripes. P‑51s destroyed 4,950 enemy aircraft in the air, more than any other fighter in Europe.

U.S. Air Force’s Presentation of the Schweinfurt and Regens­burg Raids, August 17, 1943


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